There’s a provocative short story by Ursula Le Guin called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. You can read it online here, and I suggest you do so before going on, because I’m about to spoil it completely.
The story has a simple and unoriginal conceit – that there is a city of general happiness and healthiness built, somehow, on the back of a single, abjectly miserable child:
The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good, ” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often.
Members of the community, when they come of age, are taken to see the child. They react with compassion, disgust, pity, fear. Most return to the community, able to appreciate their utopian existence all the more fully. But not all return. LeGuin writes:
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all… They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
Le Guin gives credit for this moral dilemma to William James, whose The Moral Philosopher and the Moral life inspired the story. James does not dwell on the scenario he constructs, he does not even discuss whether or not it is morally acceptable, he only brings it up to say that a certain feeling of immorality – or horror – must haunt anyone offered such a bargain. From this he argues that moral sentiments are not always learned but often internal, instinctive, but this does not make them automatically right:
In point of fact, there are no absolute evils, and there are no non‑moral goods… For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without a precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists.
From this, we can infer that James does not think the bargain of Omelas is an absolute evil. Le Guin doesn’t seem to think so either, for in her story most citizens do not reject it, and those who do, do so for alternative which may be better but which she can’t begin to describe or name. I am with James in thinking that any moral rule system we create must be conflicting and inconsistent. I am with Le Guin in not being able to describe or imagine the world in which even the evil of a single suffering person is eliminated.
But though I think neither James nor Le Guin would condemn the people of Omelas harshly, they seem like they would favor those who walk away.
What do you think? Is the decision to walk away foolish? Brave but morally unnecessary? The only morally justifiable option?
Would you walk away from Omelas?